Clarence Goodman Jr., whose home is on Smith Island in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, calls his days working at the Southwest Washington fish market "a steppingstone." To what, he's not certain.

"To being something, to being able to retire and to living good while I got the life," said Goodman, 32. "Me, I got my heart into it."

Dozens of fishmongers such as Goodman travel from the isolated island community of a few hundred -- where everyone is Methodist and speaks the same Elizabethan dialect -- to work in an increasingly diverse metropolitan area of 3.5 million.

For the young men from Maryland's Smith Island and from nearby watermen's communities on and off Virginia's Eastern Shore, selling fish on the Southwest Washington waterfront is a tradition, almost a rite of passage, that dates back generations.

Wedged between the Washington Marina and a string of fancy new restaurants, they toil under the shadow of highway overpasses and nearby federal office buildings.

They begin working at the fish stalls in their teens. In their first exposure to metropolitan life, they venture to the nightspots of Georgetown and the dwindling number of sex-oriented clubs on 14th Street NW. But mostly, they work 13-hour days hawking fish and crabs from dockside barges, then collapse into bunk beds provided for them in the floating fish emporiums.

"I just pretty well stick with this right here," said Stevie Evans, 22, whose Smith Island family owns the Jessie Taylor barge and whose wife and young daughter stay back in Ewell, the island's unofficial capital. He said his wife "would rather me be home, but this is all I know, so this is what I do."

They eat as well as sleep on the boats. They work seven days on, seven days off, year in, year out, for a straight salary, room and board.

"I wanted to go to college, but they didn't have what I wanted," said Goodman. "I wanted to be a number one crab salesman."

Goodman said he had left the waterfront three or four times but kept going back. "Once a wharf rat, always a wharf rat," he said. "You always see 'em come back, a month, four years, even five years later. Money keeps 'em coming back."

It's a little bit of the Eastern Shore in Southwest Washington. Bushel baskets of crabs beckon. British-sounding brogues resonate -- the vocal legacy of 300 years of relative isolation and clannishness.

"When I first came here, I dragged all my words out. They couldn't understand what I was saying," said Mark Crockett, 33, a fish salesman from Tangier Island, Va. "I try to fix it up a little bit. When I go back to Tangier, they say I'm talking proper now. They make fun of it."

The fish market is the last remnant of the once-bustling Southwest waterfront that existed before bulldozers leveled the working-class neighborhood and urban renewal brought condominiums, government offices and high-rise buildings, along with chain restaurants on the channel that separates Washington from East Potomac Park.

All along Water Street, now largely subsumed by Maine Avenue, were docks, restaurants and fish peddlers. The fish merchants began selling their wares there shortly after the Civil War. Their presence became official in 1913, when Congress set aside dock space for their boats.

"It's one of the oldest fish markets in continuous use in the United States," according to T. Rodney Oppmann, a Washington lawyer who represents their interests. Wendell Swan, a Washington real estate broker who has studied such things, said the Southwest Washington fish peddlers comprise the second largest fish market on the East Coast, after Fulton Street's in New York.

Each waterborne business pays the District $105 in monthly wharfage fees.

For years, the fishmongers navigated their own boats once a week down the Potomac to the Chesapeake, where they bought from watermen, then motored back upriver to sell the stuff from their decks. But no more. Since 1961, all the seafood has been trucked over from the Eastern Shore and points south.

"It's a lot fresher," said Wallace Pruitt Jr., 63, whose father, Elisha, from Harborton, Va., started selling seafood here in 1925. Pruitt began working for him in 1937, when he was 14. They made their living from a 46-foot oat.

Pruitt Seafood has 15 employes. Typically, most of them are from the Eastern Shore. That's largely true also at Capt. Red's, a 1920s paddle-wheeler turned barge that is owned by Bobby McClure, born and raised in old Southwest, and at Capt. White Seafood, whose owner Billy White is from Hallwood, Va.

For many years, said Newton Brown Jr. of Custis and Brown, an Onancock, Va., firm, the fish wharf workers were almost exclusively from Smith Island and Tangier, just south of Smith on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake, and all were white. But now, blacks, who like their white counterparts are generally from the Eastern Shore, sell fish side by side with whites.

Troy Ward, from Crisfield, Md., the closest mainland town to Smith Island, said he missed the slow-paced Eastern Shore. "It's different there," he said. Said Crockett, "Everything's so fast-paced over here. You go to the malls, everybody looks like they're running fast. You go to Tangier, everybody has a slow-down walk."